Nikki Haley’s Shameless Walk on the Trump Tightrope

The onetime Sarah Palin protégée is treading a treacherous path. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Shuttersto

Former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is one of those Republicans often considered “reasonable” by Democrats and independents; she’s sometimes floated as a congenial face for a post-Trump GOP. Without question, she has shown some serious, if opportunistic, political chops that have enabled her to walk a fine line between her far-right roots and the rest of the country.

This is why Haley’s recent headline-grabbing stunt, in which she declared that President Biden would “step down” if he really “loved our country,” was so startling. Sounding like someone in full MAGA fever, she went on a 16-minute tear against “Biden” (never referring to him as the president) on Fox News Radio’s Guy Benson Show. Haley relentlessly attacked the president’s Supreme Court appointment process; his policies toward Russia, Iran, and China; and his approach to crime, COVID-19, and immigration, culminating in this mighty anathema:

Honestly, for the good of our country, if Biden loved our country, he would step down and take Kamala with him. Because the foreign policy situation is beyond dangerous at this point. And, you know, when you don’t have a strong America, you don’t have a safe world. And that’s what’s getting ready to happen. My only hope and prayer is that they get it together and realize that this isn’t about America. This isn’t about NATO. This is about all of us. This is about safety. This is about strength. This is about freedom winning.

Politicians who says something is “about” this or that are really saying: Here comes a message. Pay attention. Haley’s message is that Biden is a danger to this country and its values, not just the leader of the other major party. It’s not what you’d expect from a pol who normally knows how to keep her balance. But Haley has certainly moved back and forth across the lines of respectability before.

Coming out of the extremist Jim DeMint–Mark Sanford wing of the South Carolina GOP, Haley first won the governorship as a Sarah Palin protégée who managed to turn scurrilous sexual allegations against her into a political asset. Her uneven record as governor (one lowlight was a State of the State Address in which she told out-of-state job creators who accepted unions to take their money and shove it) was obscured by her famous call to take down the Confederate flag at the statehouse in 2015, long after any real courage was required to do so. This overdue gesture instantly made her a national figure, and her identity as an Indian-American woman made her attractive to Republicans seeking diverse figures willing to articulate old-school conservative ideological views.

For a time, Haley also seemed skilled in her handling of Donald Trump, despite her original sin in supporting someone else for president in 2016. Her brief and largely uneventful tenure at the U.N. checked the foreign-policy box on her résumé, which is very helpful for a presidential or vice-presidential aspirant. And she survived the gig with Trump’s affections toward her intact without having to say or do anything to embarrass her mainstream fan base. The valedictory memoir she then published, to much gushing from interviewers, managed again and again to display her independence from Trump while praising his name and throwing rivals under various buses.

Her apparent sure-footedness ended, however, along with many other illusions, in the wake of the Capitol riot. A much-discussed profile of Haley by Politico’s Tim Alberta quoted her as saying Trump’s “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history” and that “he’s not going to run for federal office again … I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far.”


Within days, Haley was telling anyone who wanted to hear that she would be happy to support a Trump comeback bid in 2024. As I noted at the time, this was quite the course correction: “Now Haley has clearly reassessed her position, and Trump’s, and has bent her knee again, probably hoping that he doesn’t read Politico Magazine.”

Her explosion of shameless demagoguery on Fox News may be part of her own comeback bid in a party where nastiness toward the Democratic president and vice-president is a unifying theme.

Haley just turned 50 last week, which is very young for a political veteran these days. She brings back memories of a snarky little quip I penned in 1991 for a friendly introduction of Bill Clinton: “He’s been a bright young rising star in three decades.” Clinton, of course, made that final leap from “potential” to the presidency. Haley needs to calm down and leave the red-meat-purveying to future days on the campaign trail if she wants to do the same. Trump will eventually go away, then the face of the post-Trump GOP may need some dignity.

Nikki Haley’s Shameless Walk on the Trump Tightrope